Many online marketers have been nervously checking search rankings ever since Google's head of webspam Matt Cutts indicated that over-optimised websites may soon face penalties. However, there are still plenty of ways to make your online presence attractive to search engines.
Why the panic?
In March 2012, Matt Cutts said Google wanted to "level the playing field" for businesses which create high-quality websites but don't engage in aggressive SEO strategies.
"[We] start to look at the people who abuse [SEO], whether they throw too many keywords on the page, or whether they exchange way too many links, or whatever they are doing to go beyond what a normal person would expect in a particular area," he said.
What does this mean for SEO practices?
Keywords, backlinks and similar tools have long been used by SEO practitioners – and it's very unlikely Google will ever discount them, as whether natural or contrived, they will always indicate a website's relevance.
The key is in the nature of their application. For example, if a website provides genuinely useful information and a few keywords happen to fit seamlessly into the text, neither a user nor Google is likely to object. However, if it is filled with ill-fitting phrases – and the information is of a shallow nature and poorly written – it will be less successful.
What are the best SEO strategies?
The simplest advice is this: Make a useful website.
It might sound obvious, but it's incredible how many shortcuts people will take to avoid spending time creating a quality product. The SEO practices applied to some ill-conceived websites often take just as long to implement as it would take to create a genuinely useful online resource.
To minimise your risk of facing Google over-optimisation penalties, it's worth focusing on the following positive methods, known as white hat SEO techniques:
When a website is easy to understand and a pleasure to explore, people are more likely to visit for longer and return. You should therefore aim to build the most straightforward navigation model possible – and don't forget to include basic facilities such as an about page and a contact page. A logical website structure is also easier for Google to index.
If your website is truly relevant to the product or service it is advertising – and the copy offers useful information – you'll find yourself using keywords quite naturally. They then just need fine tuning to reflect the most popular search phrases.
There is nothing wrong with linking to other websites – for example, if you and a separate local business are in the same local area and support each other, or you want to direct your users to helpful resources. It only starts to look spammy when you share links with large numbers of sites with no natural purpose for doing so. You should also link within your site, providing it is relevant and not excessive. For instance, don't try to link to the same service page from every other page on your website.
Readable title tags and meta descriptions
These are the sections of text which are displayed in Google's search results. If they just featured lists of keywords, it might have helped them rank highly in the past – but nowadays they are unattractive and unhelpful to users, which is Google's pet hate. Modern SEO best practice dictates that title tags and meta descriptions should include natural keywords which focus on explaining what people can expect if they click through to your page.
Though most SEO issues are a matter of refinement, some practices should be avoided entirely. These are known as black hat SEO techniques and include:
This is when a website contains copy or code stuffed with keywords that are visible to search engines but not users.
Gateway or doorway pages
These are pages filled with keywords which are used as bait for search engines. They are not seen by users, as visitors are automatically redirected to a target page (usually the real homepage of the website).
Creating masses of shallow content to increase keyword use is known as content farming and it was one of the main motivators behind the Google Farmer series of updates (also known as Google Panda) in 2011.